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  • Congressional Advocacy Day: Teaching Us How and Why to Advocate for Patients

    At the American Academy of Ophthalmology, our mission is to protect sight and empower lives, by serving as an advocate for patients and the public, promoting ophthalmic education and advancing the profession of ophthalmology.

    One way I accomplish this is by attending the Academy’s Mid-Year Forum, which I have done for 30 years now. I started as a councilor representing the Arkansas Ophthalmological Society (AOS), then as regional Council Chair, society president, OPHTHPAC® committee member, OPHTHPAC committee chair, Surgical Scope Fund Committee chair and then as an Academy board of trustee at large.

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    Laurie Gray Barber, MD (left), pictured with John Stechschulte, MD during the Academy’s 2023 Mid-Year Forum

    Initially timed to be a “mid-year” Chicago meeting for practical business and policy updates, in 1998 Mid-Year Forum moved to Washington, D.C., to incorporate Congressional Advocacy Day. At every congressional advocacy meeting, I have learned critical information that further encourages the superior care of our patients. This year was the Mid-Year Forum’s 30th anniversary.

    Each year for Congressional Advocacy Day, we arrive in D.C. the evening before our congressional visits. Ophthalmologists begin by poring over the agenda book and written legislative briefing tools while experts advise us on each of the key issues.

    This year, we were given four full issue briefs with “asks” for each legislator:

    • Physicians Need a Fair and Stable Medicare Payment System
    • Delivery of Quality Care to Our Nation’s Veterans
    • Support Increased Vision Research Funding
    • Ease Prior Authorization Requirements

    Each state’s ophthalmology advocates were scheduled to meet with their lawmakers on Thursday. Each meeting would run about 30 minutes, with ophthalmologists addressing each of the four issues. As representatives for the Academy and our state or subspecialty societies, we strived to personalize our and our patients’ experiences, discussing important perspectives with our legislators.

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    Dr. Barber (pictured left) with the Arkansas delegation on their way to the capitol during Congressional Advocacy Day

    What lawmakers and staff needed to know is how their constituents will be affected by laws and policies.  Our concise stories help to shape perceptions and educate them on the impact of enacted and proposed new laws in their districts.

    After each meeting, we offer to assist the legislative staff and lawmakers with any questions or concerns regarding the impact on ophthalmology, medicine in general and most importantly, our patients. We shared emails and phone numbers and wrote thank you letters, then followed up with letters to update each legislator as to changes that might occur. Feedback and thank you notes are provided to the Academy via an online app.

    Over the years, several of Arkansas’s lawmakers and staff have stayed in contact with me. A longtime House representative caught my eye while he rode in a large parade, and he hollered out, “Hello to Dr. Barber!” Senators have called, emailed and made the effort to be present in person on Congressional Advocacy Day.

    Most recently, our senior Sen. John Boozman, OD, R-Ark., directed his staff to accompany us to the underground Senate railroad and the ornate Senate Reception Room, where he met with us for 30 minutes between Senate votes.

    Although we did not broach the Department of Veterans Affairs’ plan to develop national standards of practice with him, he has always supported Medicare payment system stability, vision research money requests and the department’s research into traumatic brain injuries in veterans.

    Finding commonality with your lawmakers assists in cementing a working relationship. Continuing to communicate with your legislators locally and nationally encourages them to regard you as their expert on eye care. You may not be a member of their party, nor agree with all the issues they champion. But it’s likely that they will want to help in furthering excellence in ophthalmic care for all our patients. Having a lawmaker’s ear can make the difference between premium vision or blindness.

    As senior ophthalmologists, we may now have more time to advocate for our profession. Conflicts of interest tend to disappear once we become retired. Our wisdom will likely be welcomed by our fellow ophthalmologists, as well as by lawmakers and their staff.

    It is time to knit together our science education while advocating for our patients by developing relationships with key policy makers. Consider joining your colleagues next year at Mid-Year Forum 2024, April 17-20!

    Want to get involved?